Photo by Shayna Douglas on Unsplash
“Yes, this is Henry Chester. I didn’t know she had a portrait in a Glasgow art gallery. How do you know it’s my wife’s?” Henry, a slender man with thick, curly grey hair, paced his kitchen floor, phone in hand, concentrating on what the man on the other end was saying. “Let me look at the one I have,” he said, walking briskly into the living room.
“Who are you talking to?” Linda asked. She watched her father go up to and scan the portrait of her that hung on the wall next to the navy velvet couch where she was sitting in her father’s Upper West Side Manhattan apartment. “What are you looking for, Papa?” she asked, muting the TV.
Henry put his finger to his lips to shush her and went back to the phone. “Her signature is here, but I don’t see her initials,” he said to the man at the other end. “I don’t use the computer. Please e-mail my daughter a photograph and whatever information you have.” He rattled off Linda’s e-mail, said goodbye and then sat down next to Linda.
“That was Philip Kihn, a gallery owner in Glasgow. He has one of Mama’s portraits. Wanted to know what I could tell him. Said the portrait was signed by Shirley Chester, and he saw her initials. Said he learned she incorporated them in all her portraits.” Henry shook his head. “It can’t be your mother’s. She didn’t show her work in galleries.”
“Wow. That’s wild. Maybe it is hers.”
“I doubt it. Mr. Kihn will e-mail you a photo of the piece. I’ll know if it’s hers when I see it.”
Linda stood up and walked over to study the portrait. Her eyes followed the bubble-gum pink sundress, the beaded bodice, the deep-pink satin sash, the white sandals, and the hues of brown hair. Wish my hair was still that color.
“I don’t see her initials anywhere.”
Henry pushed himself up from the couch and walked over to examine the painting.
“I don’t see them either,” he said, after a few minutes. “This is ridiculous. Your mother didn’t encrypt her initials in her paintings, and she didn’t send out her work.”
Linda wondered why her father was so adamant. Maybe she never told him she sent out her paintings to avoid inciting a conflict. He might have thought she wasn’t talented and sending out her work was pointless.
After dinner, the following evening, Linda checked her e-mails. “Papa, I got the photo,” she yelled. “Come, look.”
Henry put down his magazine and walked into the study, pulled up a chair and leaned forward to get a closer look at the screen. “That’s definitely her signature,” he said. “I recognize her style. Acrylic. Cranberry red and cerulean blue in everything. Bold brush strokes. That was your mother.”
“Clearly, that’s me,” Linda said. “Who’s the other girl?”
Henry shrugged. “She looks like you.”
Linda rolled back her chair. “Mr. Kihn says the painting is titled Young Girls. I like it.”
“Could the older girl be one of your friends?” Henry asked, groping for an answer.
“A friend who looks so much like me? I don’t think so. Perhaps they’re both me. At twelve, and the way Mama thought I would look in my late teens.”
“It’s not likely,” Henry said. “She only painted what she saw.”
“I’ll e-mail Mr. Kihn and tell him I’m the younger girl, but we don’t know who the older one is.”
Henry was preparing dinner when Linda got home the following evening. Linda poured some wine, set the table, and sat down.
“Any news on your apartment?” Henry asked.
“Jonathan spoke to the contractor today. The renovations should be finished soon. We hope everything will be completed by our wedding. You okay with me staying here until it’s done?”
“Of course,” Henry said. “How was work?”
“Busy. We’re trying to finish an advertising project for a major client,” Linda said, sipping her wine. “Did you go swimming today?”
“For an hour,” he said, plating their dinner. “Some guy asked my age. When I told him, he couldn’t believe it.”
“You don’t look seventy,” Linda said, cutting into a chicken leg. “Papa, when did Mama start painting?”
“When you were in elementary school. She took classes in portrait painting at the Art Students’ League. Painted there every day while you were in school. When you were in junior high, I left the accounting firm to start my own practice. Your mother was worried because I stopped getting a regular paycheck and came to help me in the office. It was then that she went to the studio only on Fridays.”
“Why would Mama give up something she loved?” Linda asked, remembering the joyful look on her mother’s face whenever she said she was going to the studio to paint.
“Painting wasn’t work. She didn’t sell anything. Probably thought if she didn’t help me, I’d have to hire an assistant. She knew we couldn’t afford it.”
“What she did was selfless.”
“Selfless? She was being practical,” Henry said.
After Linda cleared the table and put the leftovers in the refrigerator, she went into the study and turned on the computer. “Mr. Kihn responded,” Linda called out.
Henry entered the room and pulled up a chair. “Read it to me, please.”
“Sure. Dear Ms. Chester: I received your e-mail and am happy to answer your questions. Professor Bertram Spector at the Art Students’ League told me three years ago, at his urging, your mother entered Young Girls in an international art competition at the Glasgow School of Art. Her painting won First Place in the Portrait Division for Emerging Artists. The winning pieces were announced that June, displayed in the school’s gallery for one year, then auctioned off and the proceeds used to benefit the school. I recently purchased her piece for my own gallery.
Regarding her initials, Professor Spector told me she embedded them and those of her subjects as a playful way to further engage the viewer. Therefore, it would be inappropriate for me to tell you about their location in the photo. However, may I suggest that you look carefully at the clothing.”
Henry gasped and turned towards her.
“I know it’s surprising,” she said, then returned to the e-mail. “You might also like to know that Professor Spector shipped many of your mother’s pieces to Michelle Jensen in New Haven, Connecticut. I hope this information is helpful.”
“Who is Michelle Jensen, Papa?” Linda asked, fidgeting with her engagement ring.
Henry shook his head.
“Mama didn’t mention the name?”
“Why would Professor Spector send Mama’s work to a stranger?”
“Maybe she’s a collector.”
“Wouldn’t he have told us?”
“Perhaps he thought we’d disapprove,” Henry said. “Or want a cut of the sales? We’ll call Michelle Jensen tomorrow.”
Linda turned off the computer, and she and Henry went into the living room.
“Mama’s initials aren’t on my dress or hair ribbons,” she said aloud, standing in front of the painting. “Not on my sandals either.” Her eyes moved quickly to the bottom of the picture. “Ah, I just found them, Papa,” Linda yelled.
Henry walked purposefully to the painting. “Where?”
“My socks,” she said. “Notice how ‘L.C.’ is integrated into the lace on the cuffs.”
Henry chuckled. “It’s like searching for Waldo. Told you she wasn’t serious about her art. It was a game.”
“Why are you being so dismissive? More than one person thought her work noteworthy. Who knows what she’d be doing now if she were still alive. I can’t believe it’s been three years already.”
Henry was dozing on the couch the next night when Linda got home from work. He heard her turn on the light and stirred.
“Eight thirty,” he said, glancing at his wristwatch. “There’s food on the stove.”
“Thanks. I already ate. By the way, did you get Michelle’s number?”
“Information said there’s one for Michelle Jensen in New Haven, but it’s unlisted.”
“I’ll e-mail Mr. Kihn, tomorrow. He must have her contact information.”
A few days later, while Linda was in the kitchen, her cell rang.
“Linda Chester?” the voice at the other end asked.
“Yes. Who’s calling?”
“This is Michelle Jensen, and I— “
“Yes, yes,” Linda said, cutting her off. “My father and I wanted to call you, but your number’s unlisted.”
“Mr. Kihn gave me yours. Suggested I call.”
“Glad you did. Are you an art collector?”
“I understand Professor Spector sent you several of my mother’s paintings.”
“Yes. All incredibly beautiful.”
“But may I ask why he sent them to you?” Linda heard silence at the other end. Then, “Michelle, are you there?”
“Yes. Just thinking how to answer.”
“Shirley Chester was my mother, too,” Michelle finally said.
“Beg your pardon?” Linda reached to the sink for support. “How old are you, Michelle?”
“Twenty-seven.” An older sister. That explains why we look so much alike. “I... I...” Oh gosh, what should I be asking?
“Excuse me, Linda. I’m sure you have many questions. Maybe we should meet in person. I could drive to New York next weekend.”
“Great,” Linda said and gave Michelle the address. A sister. Wow! This is amazing! How strange to find this out. I hope we like each other.
In the living room, Henry was on the couch going through the mail. Linda sat down beside him. “That was Michelle Jensen.”
“I have some rather shocking news,” Linda replied. “Get ready for this. Mama has another daughter, older than me.”
“Oh sure. And I’m Pablo Picasso,” Henry said. “I don’t have another daughter.” He paused. “Who’s her father?”
“I didn’t ask. Michelle’s coming here next weekend.”
“Here? You didn’t discuss it with me.”
“Sorry. I wasn’t thinking. She offered to come to New York. I quickly said yes. I have questions. You must, too.”
“Twenty-nine years of marriage. Your mother never said anything about another child.”
“She didn’t tell me I had a sister, even after all the times I complained about being an only child.”
“Maybe Michelle’s a nut.”
“She didn’t seem it.”
Linda prepared sandwiches, brownies and grapes and laid them out on the coffee table in the living room. When the doorbell rang, she ran to answer it. “Come in,” she said, opening the door and nervously smiling at Michelle.
Michelle was about five feet five inches, slightly taller than Linda and fashionably dressed in black slacks and a colorful blouse. “These are for you,” she said, handing Linda a bouquet of carnations and stepping into the apartment. “Our mother’s favorite.”
“Thanks for the flowers. First time hearing ‘our mother,’” Linda said. “Sounds strange. Come on in.” Linda walked into the living room and Michelle followed.
When Henry saw Michelle, he stared and looked a bit undone. Then, “You look just like my deceased wife.”
“That’s you, right?” Michelle asked, pointing to the portrait on the wall.
“Yes. Mama painted it when I was twelve,” Linda said.
“It’s beautiful. Mr. Kihn told me about Young Girls, but I haven’t seen it.”
“Come,” Linda said, guiding Michelle into the study and pulling up the photo on the computer.
Michelle studied it. “That’s us!” she exclaimed. “I’m wearing my favorite dress. Mother must have painted me from a photo I sent her.” She paused. “She was so talented. I’m not artistic. You?”
Linda and Michelle returned to the living room. Henry was sitting in his recliner. Linda sat down on the couch opposite him and motioned for Michelle to sit beside her. “Papa, Michelle is the other girl.”
“I see that now,” he said, studying Michelle.
There was an awkward silence for a minute. Then Linda said, “So tell us.”
“Where did I come from?” Michelle joked.
“Yes.” Linda smiled. “It’s kind of a shock to us.”
“Well, our mother had been dating my father for a year. She became pregnant. He wasn’t ready to start a family and wanted her to abort, but she wouldn’t. Said he couldn’t be seen dating a pregnant woman and left her when she started to show.”
“How horrible,” Linda said.
“I think so, too. Mother struggled with what to do. Her parents lived in California. Her job didn’t have a day care, and she couldn’t afford a babysitter. Wanted me to have the best life possible, so she contacted an adoption agency. Said the decision was extremely painful. I was adopted when I was only days old.”
"Do you have siblings?" Linda asked.
"Three brothers. They’re not adopted."
"When did you contact my . . . I mean, our mother?"
"When I was ten. I wanted to meet my biological mother. My adoptive mother called the agency. They only had the number for the Art Students’ League. I called our mother there and said I wanted to see her. She came to visit when we lived in New Jersey. Explained why she couldn't keep me. Told me she was married. Said her husband didn't know about me and wouldn't understand. Told me she had another daughter and hoped someday we could all meet. Said she thought about me every day and would always love me. I said I’d like if we could remain in contact. She made me promise never to call or visit her house and to write to her only at the Art Students' League. Sometimes, she called on Fridays from the studio."
"You must have felt slighted," Henry said.
"Not at all. I was happy she wanted me in her life. I understood the constraints."
"Did she discuss me?" Linda asked.
"Every conversation. She loved you very much. We exchanged photos of family events.
Asked how I was doing in school, boyfriends, prom, college."
"Did you keep in contact until she died?" Linda asked.
"Yes. ‘Till early May, three years ago. The letters and calls stopped coming. I sensed what happened."
"She died on May 15th. A massive heart attack," Linda said.
“Mr. Kihn told me about the art contest in Glasgow,” Michelle said. “It’s so sad that Mother didn’t know she’d won.”
"You learned a lot about us over the years,” Henry said, through gritted teeth. "And I'm learning a lot about my deceased wife right now."
"I'm sorry," Michelle said, shifting her gaze between Henry and Linda. "I know this must be difficult, but I'm glad we met."
"Young lady, you have no idea how difficult this is," Henry said, his voice shaking.
"Papa," Linda said sternly, glaring at her father. She saw that Michelle had turned away and sensed that she was probably feeling uneasy. "Michelle," Linda said, "tell us about your family."
"My husband, Jared, is a physics professor. We have two children. Adam’s five and Ella's three." Michelle opened her purse and took out a photo.
“What a lovely family," Linda said, passing the photo to her father.
Henry pushed it away.
"What I don't understand, Michelle, is how Professor Spector knew you and Mama were related," Linda said.
"After her death, he found a note in her locker that she had written years ago. Said everything in it should go to her husband and daughter, Linda. Anything they didn't want, should be offered to her daughter, Michelle Jensen in New Haven. She included my phone number and address. I wanted to call when I received the paintings, but how could I explain who I was?"
“Yes, of course,” Linda said. “I understand.”
Linda looked at her father and then back at Michelle. "We didn't know anything about the paintings. Professor Spector never contacted us."
Henry looked down and gazed at the braided rug. He cleared his throat. Then a second time.
"You spoke to Professor Spector, Papa?" Linda asked.
"I was overwhelmed. I could barely manage going through her belongings and personal papers in the apartment. Couldn't bring myself to check her studio locker, too. Told him the League could keep everything."
“You should have spoken to me. I might have liked some of her pieces. I’ve never seen her later works."
“I wasn’t thinking. I’m sorry, Linda.”
“Maybe I should go,” Michelle said, standing up. “I can see this is upsetting.”
Linda extended her arm to stop her. “No, don’t,” she said. “You haven’t been here that long.”
"I think it’s best.”
Linda got up and escorted Michelle to the door, acquiescing. “My fiancé and I will be married next month. You’re invited,” she suddenly burst out, surprised at how happy she was to have a sister.
“Michelle isn’t family,” Henry said, trailing Linda.
“Yes, she is, Papa.”
“She isn’t, and I forbid her coming to the wedding.”
Linda saw Michelle’s hand on the doorknob. “Wait,” she said, quickly scribbling her cell on a piece of paper and pushing it into Michelle’s hand. “Call me.”
“Tell your father I’m sorry,” Michelle said, looking disappointed.
“Thanks for coming. It was good to meet you.”
One evening, a few days later, Henry was in the living room reading a magazine, and Linda approached him.
“Papa, I want to talk."
"After Michelle's visit, you’ve been quiet. What’s wrong?”
“I feel betrayed,” Henry said. “How could your mother not tell me she had another child? I was her husband. That’s a big secret to keep from me, don’t you think?”
“Yes, but maybe she was afraid of how you’d react.”
“What do you mean?”
“Perhaps she didn’t tell you when you were dating because she thought you’d disapprove of her for giving up her baby. Or she feared you wouldn’t want to marry her because she had a child out of wedlock. Maybe she thought that after you were married, she’d try to get the baby back and feared you’d reject it because it wasn’t yours. Frankly, Papa, we’ll never know why Mama didn’t tell us about Michelle.”
Linda was quiet. Then, “It must have tormented Mama that she had to keep her secret from you.”
“The heck with your mother. What about me?”
“Think about the anguish Mama experienced. I’m sure she wished she could have been more involved in Michelle’s life. All the milestones she only heard about or saw photos of but didn’t get to experience. Remember, Michelle told us Mama had said she hoped someday we’d be able to meet. Sounds like she wanted us to know about Michelle and was hopeful this eventually might be possible.”
"My wife deceived me!" Henry exclaimed, his face taut. “Who knows what other secrets she kept from me.”
“I get you’re hurt and angry. What about me? You never ask how I feel.”
Henry looked down, avoiding Linda’s gaze.
“I miss Mama terribly. I'm sad she won't be here for my wedding, that my children won’t know their grandmother. But I have a sister, and I'm thrilled about that. I want to know Michelle, and I want our families to share in each other's lives. We missed out on a lot growing up, but we have so much ahead to look forward to. I want you to be part of it."
Henry raised his head. "I can’t, Linda. I just can't forgive your mother. Michelle’s not my daughter.” He went into the bedroom and shut the door.
“That's right,” Linda yelled. “Just shut me up whenever you don't want to talk about something. Everything's always about you. No wonder Mama felt she couldn't tell you.”
Henry opened the door. “That’s not nice.”
“But true,” Linda said. “It’s so difficult to talk to you. If you don’t agree with what someone says, you raise your voice as if that’s going to make them change their mind.”
Linda went into the living room and sat on the couch. Henry followed.
“Mama walked on eggshells whenever she had to confront you. If you had a difficult day, or she sensed something was bothering you, she’d say, ‘red light.’ That was my cue to stay away from you. She knew to do the same.”
Henry was silent, then he looked at Linda. “Keep in mind, honey, we disagreed on many things, but we loved each other.”
“I know. Mama said that, too. I hope you can find a way to accept Michelle.”
During the weeks before the wedding, Linda and Michelle talked on the phone several times a week and discussed Linda’s frustration with their father.
“He’s being self-centered,” Linda said. “Impossible to talk to.”
“Sounds like you’ve got to be the bigger person, like Mother was.”
“That’s so wise,” Linda said. “You might be right.”
“I’m happy to help my little sister!” Michelle said, laughing.
The wedding took place at a church on the Upper East Side. At the reception, when Henry spotted Michelle and Jared sitting across the room, he walked over to them.
Linda watched her father, nervously awaiting what he would do, hoping he wouldn’t cause a scene.
“Hello, Michelle. Good to see you again,” he said, shaking her hand, then Jared’s and turning back to Michelle. “I’m still struggling with what your mother did, but I’m trying to accept it. Please, both of you, come to our table and meet the rest of our family.”
After the introductions, Henry handed Linda an envelope. She removed the photograph and read the accompanying note.
"You bought Young Girls,” she exclaimed. “How very thoughtful.”
Henry leaned over and kissed Linda. “I thought you should have it.”
“Thank you, Papa.” Linda looked at Michelle and then at the image of the painting. “I think Mama would be so happy right now,” she said softly into his ear, “so happy her secret is out, and we’ve embraced Michelle. It’s beautiful, Papa. She gave us a gift.”
Henry sat there, just nodding, as he watched the “young girls” talking.